Nature Notes: Story of The Extinct Thylacine

by Kan Parthiban, Teaching Intern

The thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) was also known as the Tasmanian tiger or zebra wolf. From Australia, they evolved about 4 million years ago and were found in New Guinea and Tasmania. Due to their shyness, they were difficult for scientists to study in the wild. However, a few live thylacines were observed in captivity. From this observation, scientists found out that thylacines were the largest carnivorous marsupials to live during modern times. They had very powerful jaws, a body length of about 5-6 feet, and a wiry and muscular build.

Like their marsupial relatives, thylacine females had a pouch for developing their young. However, theirs uniquely opened to the back. When the immature fetus was born it would crawl to the pouch and attached itself to the mother’s nipple to nurse. They remained in the pouch for about 3 months but nursed until they were 9 months old.

Thylacine evolution paralleled that of the dog family. Even though they developed similar features, the thylacine is not related to canines. Thylacine males were larger than females. Their stripes in the back helped them camouflage in grasslands, eucalyptus groves, and wetland habitats. Thylacine was an opportunistic carnivore feeding on other marsupials, domesticated sheep, birds, and reptiles. They did not hunt in packs and were very secretive.

Thylacine had no natural predators but the introduction of the dingo from Asia caused much competition. The thylacine eventually was outcompeted by the dingo due to the domestication by the Australian aborigines. Thylacine went extinct on the mainland soon after this domestication. However, the dingo never made it to the island of Tasmania, so the last resort for the thylacine was there.

Similar to the mainland, the European settlers brought sheep to Tasmania and started clear cutting trees for agricultural practices. The habitats that once belonged to the thylacine were taken over. The competition for the habitat and food resources became pronounced and livestock were being threatened by the thylacine. Along with a campaign to exterminate the thylacine population, there was a bounty set for the thylacine by the Tasmanian government. The lack of education about the species and the incentive offered by the bounty led to the ever-so-sad extinction of the thylacine.

Like the thylacine, many species in California have become extinct over the years due to human population growth and urbanization of the wilderness. For example, our state animal, the mighty California grizzly (Ursus arctos californicus) had a run-in with a similar situation where bounties were set to exterminate these magnificent creatures. Only stories remain to be told for our children to learn of their great lives on this Earth.

Every day, hundreds of species are still on the verge of extinction and are rapidly becoming endangered. The lesson to take away from extinct species is that co-existence is still an option and should be considered, especially in our technologically-advanced society. With our abundant knowledge and modern research, education about such species should be given priority instead of simple mass isolation and elimination of these species.


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